Milk alternatives – what’s the best choice?

Cow’s milk has been a staple food for generations and our high-quality dairy products are lauded worldwide.  However, a quick look around the supermarket shows there is a growing demand for non-dairy alternatives.  We have the choice of fresh or UHT-boxed nut milks, soy milk, oat and rice milk, hemp milk and coconut milk.  With an estimated 65% of the adult population being lactose intolerant, it is great that a wide range of alternative options are available, but how do they compare with cow’s milk and what’s the best choice for you and your family?

Different milks vary greatly in their levels of protein, carbs and fat

protein

Cow’s milk is a good source of protein, with 8 grams per cup.  Soy milk is comparable, with 7 grams per cup but in comparison, nut milks, rice milk and coconut milk have 1 gram or less.   Protein is essential for growing bodies and should be considered if you are looking at staple options for children and teens.   

Carbs, sugar, fat

The levels of sugar and carbohydrate will be of interest to anyone who is weight conscious or has diabetes.   Cow’s milk has 12 grams of sugar (in the form of lactose) per cup – that’s the equivalent of 2.5 teaspoons of sugar.  Oat milk has a rich, creamy texture but it also comes with 16 grams of carbohydrates per cup. Rice milk can be as high as 22 grams per cup.   In comparison, almond and coconut milks range between 1-4 grams per cup. 

In my practice I find that milky coffees can quickly lead to excessive calories and sugar.  A medium-sized flat white can contain 150 calories and 15g of lactose (that’s equivalent to 3 teaspoons of sugar.)  This won’t be an issue if it’s an occasional thing but when people are drinking one or two milky coffees a day, it can impact blood sugar levels and cause the scales to stall.   Calories vary greatly between the different milks due to their fat content.  Nut milks like almond, cashew and coconut have lower levels of fat and are therefore lower in calories.

additives

As well as varying levels of nutrients, plant-based milks come with different additives, including    emulsifiers and stabilizers.  These help to improve texture and stop the milk from separating, but can also cause gut irritation. It is important to read labels and check the ingredients.

There are fresh versions of almond and coconut milk available in the refrigerated section of the supermarket.  While they may not contain the same additives, they are also more costly than the boxed versions and more than double the price of cow’s milk.    

It is great that we have such a wide range of options available but at the end of the day, I believe the most important thing is the nutrition needs of the person drinking it.  Children and growing teenagers will benefit from the calcium, protein and fat contained in cow’s milk.  If you tolerate dairy, enjoy the taste of milk and it meets your nutritional needs, there’s no need to change to plant-based alternatives.

If you are lactose intolerant or simply want to try something new, I suggest you check the labels carefully, look at the different levels of key nutrients, experiment with different flavours and decide what suits your budget and family the best.